The 2019 World Rally Championship (WRC) begins this evening, Thursday 24 January, with the start of the 87th running of the legendary Monte-Carlo Rally. This article, hopefully, will go some way to explaining the history of the event and what makes it so special … there was even a film made about a fictional race!
The idea for a rally began in 1909 at the ‘Association Sport Automobile Vélocipédique Monégasque’, now known as the ‘Automobile Club de Monaco’. The club’s president suggested, at the request of Prince Albert I, a race starting in a number of European cities, from which the competitors would then set off and converge at the finishing line in Monaco.
The ‘Société des Bains de Mer de Monaco’ was the principal backer of the event, as they saw enormous business potential, not only to bring wealthy car fans to Monaco from all over Europe, but also a form of very shrewd marketing for the country, seeing as competitors’ cars would bear a ‘Monte-Carlo Rally’ logo badge.
In January 1911, the first ‘Monte-Carlo Rally’ was staged.
23 cars set out to compete. Their starts were staggered according to their distance from Monaco so they would arrive in Monaco on Saturday 28 January. The cars set off from Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Vienna and Berlin and they were expected to clock up a heady average speed of 10 km/h.
[Editor’s Note. 10 km/h then must have felt very different from now when it feels slower than a snail]
Sixteen cars reached Monaco and Von Esmark, a driver from Berlin, was the first to arrive, having driven 1,700 km at an average speed of 30 km/h! However, because he didn’t take part in the final parade he was relegated to second place, leaving Henri Rougier, a driver from Paris, as the winner. He was awarded 10,000 gold francs and a bronze statue for his efforts. [Editor’s Note. This information is what I gleaned from various websites, if this is incorrect please comment and I shall amend immediately]
After the 1912 race, due to world events the ‘Monte-Carlo Rally’ was not held again until 1924 where its popularity soared.
It was initially organised as a race of consistency and endurance, both human and mechanical, after all back then driving across Europe in the middle of winter was a huge achievement.
To ensure the ‘Société des Bains de Mer de Monaco’s’ commercial aims of drawing wealthy people to Monaco was kept, the rally was extended to include a women’s event to add a touch of glamour and elegance to the race.
[Editor’s Note. The idea of having a woman’s race purely to add glamour these days would most definitely be frowned upon, but remember 100 years ago life was very different. Women had only been given the vote in the UK in 1918. Women in France didn’t get the vote until 1945 (according Wikipedia that is!)]
It was only after the rally had another hiatus, during World War II, from 1940 to 1948, that it cemented itself as one of Europe’s major car rally events.
From the early 1950s, results from the race counted towards the European Grand Tourism Championship, this ultimately became the European Rally Championship and the WRC in 1973.
It was at the start of the 1960s, that special stages appeared. The endurance element was still present, but on special stages only pure speed counted.
Overall rankings used an “indexed” method of calculation meaning a less powerful vehicle could sometimes beat a much more powerful one: in 1961 a Citroën ID19 driven by René Trautmann and Jean-Claude Ogier managed the best cumulative time, but only finished nineteenth.
In the middle of the 1960s, the “scratch” ranking came into force. The index had had its day, and now it was the team with the best time on the special stages and the least penalties which would win. This period also brought “factory” drivers: the era of “gentlemen drivers” was officially over.
So famous, it was the backdrop for a film
The 1969 film ‘Monte Carlo or Bust!’ the sequel to ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, is set in the 1920s and is based on the Monte Carlo Rally, telling the story of an epic car rally across Europe that involves a lot of eccentric characters from all over the world who will stop at nothing to win
The film’s plot, according to Wikipedia, is as follows:
“In the 1920s, the Monte Carlo Rally attracts competitors from all over the world. Rivals from Britain, Italy, France and Germany find that their greatest competition comes from the United States in the form of Chester Schofield (Tony Curtis), who had won half of an automobile factory in a poker game with the late father of Sir Cuthbert Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas). Ware-Armitage has entered the race in a winner-take-all to exact revenge and win back the lost half of the company.
“The international cast of characters appear to mirror their national foibles. British Army officers Maj. Digby Dawlish (Peter Cook) and Lieut. Kit Barrington (Dudley Moore), who have entered to preserve the honour of the British Empire, drive an outlandish vehicle festooned with odd inventions. Italian policemen Angelo Pincelli (Walter Chiari) and Marcello Agosti (Lando Buzzanca) seem to be more interested in chasing three French women, led by Doctor Marie-Claude (Mireille Darc). The German entry from overbearing Willi Schickel (Gert Fröbe) and Otto Schwartz (Peer Schmidt) turn out to be convicts, driving with stolen gems on board.
“As the race begins, the contestants find that not only are they in a 1,500-mile battle with each other, but dangerous roads and the elements including a massive avalanche, are just as formidable. Chester and his new co-driver, Betty (Susan Hampshire) end up duelling with Cuthbert. Various misfortunes plague each of the contestants, with Cuthbert, poised to win, being disqualified for cheating, the British Army team blowing up, the Germans being arrested and Chester falling asleep at the wheel. In the end, the Italians are declared the winners and share their winnings with the French women’s team to help people injured in the snow slide. Chester does eventually cross the finish line, albeit due to Betty and some others pushing his car.”
If you like comedies, albeit a 1960s film, this is definitely worth seeing.
What makes the Monte-Carlo Rally special?
The Monte-Carlo Rally is possibly the world’s most iconic rally due to a mix of glamour and danger.
This little corner of the Cote D’Azur boasts glamour and wealth aplenty. With super-yachts in the harbour, streets full of supercars not to mention the Royal Family’s Hollywood connection and the world-famous casino is it any wonder most normal folk see it as the ultimate millionaire’s playground.
As for the rally, it runs through the spectacular scenery of the Alpes-Maritime region proving a challenge for cars and crew alike.
Being held in January, the road surfaces are often covered in snow and ice as temperatures in the mountains are considerably lower than Monaco itself, which could warm and sunny, even in January.
And it’s not just the road surfaces that prove tricky, the roads themselves are extremely challenging, winding and twisting and in many places having a rock face one side and a sheer drop the other. It was on these winding roads that Princess Grace had her fatal accident.
With the roads and the changing road surface from dry to snow to wet to ice the best thing drivers can bring to the party is experience, as they are more able to read the road surfaces. Is it any wonder that the Monte-Carlo Rally is difficult to finish? Those who win are surely legends?
The WRC Monte-Carlo Rally 2019
This year’s four-day rally has been remodelled, adopting a more compact format focusing on the Alps base in Gap. Several new speed tests have been introduced and the route is 40 per cent different from the 2018 rally. Even the Opening/Start Ceremony has been moved from Casino Square to the centre of Gap.
According the WRC website, after the start ceremony two late evening special stages will take place:
- La Bréole / Selonnet
- Avançon / Notre-Dame-du-Laus
Both are new and run for 20km each in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Hautes-Alpes regions.
Friday sees competitors driving 124.38 km on a route to the south-west of Gap, with two loops of three tests tackled twice. [Editor’s Note. That’s a mouthful and a half!]
Saturday’s route is to the north of Gap, comprising a double pass over Agnières-en-Dévoluy / Corps and Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes / La Bâtie-Neuve. After a final service in Gap, competitors will then make the long journey south to Monaco.
The finale on Sunday is the same as 2018 which comprised two passes over two tests in the mountains above the Principality, with no opportunity for service.
The 16 stages of the rally, in total, cover 322.81km and wraps up on Sunday afternoon when winners are honoured at a prize-giving ceremony overlooking the famous harbour.
Last year’s WRC champion, Sebastian Ogier, looks favourite to win his sixth Monte-Caro Rally, although Toyota’s Ott Tanak might have something to say about that. And, with rally legend Sebastian Loeb taking part for Hyundai he could certainly add to the mix.
My money though, would probably be on Ogier to win.